Character creation (part three)

1 11 2009

One of the main reasons adventure writers fail to create believable characters is that they stereotype

Understand the type of characters

There are many types of characters, and the following list should help you sort the wheat from the chaff. By knowing what a stereotype is or isn’t it’ll be easier to avoid them.

a. Antagonist

This is the bad guy of the story. More accurately, it is the person opposed to the PCs. The antagonist will be covered in more detail in a later blog.

b. Protagonists

These are the Heroes of the story. The protagonists will be covered in more detail in a later blog.

c. Cardboard character

This is a true stereotype and must be avoided at all costs. The character has no depth and adds nothing to the adventure. Players see cardboard characters from a mile away and they think that you’re a sloppy GM – and that other characters will be similarly hackneyed.

A stereotype is a character that fits the pattern the player expected the moment you introduced them:

  • The prostitute that is really a ‘tart with a heart.’
  • The soldier that was ‘only following orders.’

d. Confidante

The Heroes use the confidante to explain what they are thinking, going to do, have done etc. Having said this. the confidante should be a character in his own right.

e. Developing character

This would describe a character that changes over the course of the plot. The Heroes are automatically developing characters.

f. Flat character

Better than a cardboard effort, and should be used sparingly. Here the character has some traits, but not enough to make them rounded. When you don’t have time to invest in a character, it’s better to make them predictable rather than not. Otherwise the reader is confused.

The police captain can be gruff and wear his badge with pride. If he only appears rarely, it’s no more or less than the player expects. Remember, asking them to invest time in understanding an NPC only for them to never appear again is a way to alienate your player.

g. Foil

This is someone the Heroes react to without being in conflict. Heroes often need them in order to be the Heroes.

This is Han Solo to Luke Skywalker’s Protagonist. It is the conflict between them – without being hostility that helps make Luke the Jedi he becomes. 

Often it is another PC that is the foil.

h. Round character

This is someone who is complex enough to surprise the player. It has to be someone who is worth the player investing time in.

This character should have some flaws and although they can be in keeping with the overall role of the character, they should not be too predictable.

Heroes must always be round characters – without flaws they are too perfect and difficult to empathise with.

Broadly speaking, all your main characters should be round – even if we don’t get to see that roundness explicitly.

i. Spear-carriers

These are minor characters. They are invariably flat and serve limited value to the story – other than being part of the crowd. They are often used to show the mood of the consensus.

They aren’t stereotypes as they are designed to be anonymous and they represent the popular perspective.

j. Static character

If the character does not develop, they are automatically static.

For all they are round characters, antagonists are often static – and that is their downfall. The protagonists develop and this is what allows them to triumph in the end.

k. Stock character

A type of flat character that is typically a stereotype but the blandness is excusable if you need a soldier to be brave, or a clergyman to be caring or a scientist to be inquisitive.

They shouldn’t appear on more than one encounter though.

l. Sympathetic character

If the players can relate to a character, they are sympathetic. The Heroes are typically, but not always, sympathetic.

m. Unsympathetic character

If the character makes us feel uncomfortable, they are unsympathetic. Again, the antagonist is invariably unsympathetic.

Avoid superheroes

Superheroes are, on the whole, boring. The best superheroes are flawed in some way. Characters that are only good and wholesome can be really dull after a while.

Players will empathise with NPCs that have weaknesses – either physical or mental.

As with many aspects of writing, it’s a fine line.

A quick-tempered character is fine. A drug-addicted character is much harder to like.

The worse the weakness, the better the writer needs to be to draw the player in to like the character, warts and all.

Understanding young children as characters

On one hand, children are easy to write as characters but on the other they can be much harder to create.


On the plus side, they have less of a back-story to develop (they’ve spent less time on this earth).

On the debit side, they have less of a back-story to develop (and so are harder to differentiate).

Now it hopefully makes more sense.

One of the strengths of children is how they are all able to speak their mind, without the concern of adult’s social inhibitions.

On the downside, most children are like that, so how do you make this little person unique?

The first rule is that being a child is not the same as being child-like or being childish.

People who have limited exposure to children will struggle to create believable children.

Sometimes children can be just like adults, and other times be uniquely children.

Knowing when each manifests itself is a challenge if you don’t know children.

The second rule is that only knowing boys will make it a challenge to write about girls – and vice versa.

Finally, children are as unique as adults. The younger they are, the less likely they will be overtly influenced by the opinion of others and will express whatever is in their mind, regardless of what their peers might say.

The same can’t be said for adults.

How to develop characters

Understanding protagonist growth

People change and the core of many campaigns is the growth of the NPCs and PCs as the story develops (and not just in hit points).

Without getting involved in the plotting of the adventure, the change should be foreshadowed early in the story and typically involves the overcoming of one of the character’s early flaws or weaknesses.

An alternative way to develop characters

A while ago, I came across a list of twelve aspects of character development that may suit your NPCs.

a. Personality

This is covered more specifically in a later blog and so I will only say here that this option is about the character’s personality developing as a result of actions within the adventure.

The change is just as likely to be negative as positive.

b. Professionally

Rarely are characters, especially Heroes, in their comfort zone for the whole story.

Typically they are a fish out of water that has to learn how to walk.

The key here is to flesh out the person they were – prior to becoming the character we see today.

Especially useful are the aspects of the character’s previous role that will stand them in good stead for the upcoming story.

c. Status

We live in an age that is arguably the most tolerant in history towards different social class in relation to wealth and profession – although to suggest we live in a world without bigots would be a lie.

The point is that in other eras, those who hold someone’s social class (or the colour of their skin) as the primary barometer of their worth were even more widespread.

Even though conscious discrimination is less prevalent today, it certainly happens on a subconscious level.

At a murder scene, the officer is more likely to hear out a witness in a suit and tie who speaks with an educated voice and is introduced as a doctor than a construction worker with ripped clothing and a broad local accent.

We all stereotype and so will your characters. So will your players.

d. Family

If your character is an only child and raised in the middle of the country, they may have difficulty in dealing with large groups. Consider the standard characteristics of the first, last and middle child.

e. Money

This covers a number of aspects.

Firstly what is their reaction to money? Is it to be coveted or ignored? Do they value others – and perceive others value them – by material wealth?

Secondly, what was their upbringing like? Did they want for nothing or did they scrimp and save for everything?

Did they have money or were they poor? This is different to the previous statement as some people were born into money but strict parents forced them to learn its true value.

How has that upbringing affected them? Do they act just like their parents or have they rebelled against the way they were raised?

f. Life Changing Incidents

Did your character overcome a potentially life-threatening illness or did they see a close friend die in a tragic accident?

Have they had one event, or is their life an endless stream of incidents. This will give you an idea of how your character will react to events in the adventure.

g. Fears and Phobias

Are these real fears or completely irrational ones? Is the character doing something about overcoming them, or avoiding them at all costs?

h. Traits

Traits can be physical or verbal. Does the character give an indication of what they are thinking, or about to do, subconsciously?

Or even consciously, as a signal to those in the know?

i. Weaknesses

As opposed to a flaw, does your character have a fondness for crosswords or beer that may get in the way of the adventure?

Or is their devotion to the Company going to cause them conflict at some point?

j. Relationships

This could be considered two ways.

Firstly, think about relationships with specific characters (even ones that don’t appear in the adventure e.g. parents).

Secondly, how does your character react in general to people? Are they liked? Are they gregarious? Are they a closed book?

k. Goals

What does the character want?

l. The ultimate goal

What would ensure the character would throw all of their usual goals out of the window? Is it the possible death of a character or loss of face, or something else?

Next time I’ll talk about differentiating characters.




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